Ohlone protest burial site desecration
Published Dec 1, 2005 9:00 PM
A group of Indigenous
people and their supporters marched for three weeks in November from Monterrey,
Calif., to the San Francisco Bay area—270 miles—to protest the
desecration of 425 ancient Shellmound burial sites along the march
Walk in Emeryville, Calif.
The group Indian People Organizing for Change led this action,
called the Sacred Site/Shellmound Peace Walk. The trek concluded Nov. 25 at the
entrance to the biggest site: the Bay Street Mall in Emeryville, Calif., in the
For years now, Indigenous people have struggled to prevent
further desecration of the sacred ground where their ancestors were
traditionally reverently buried under huge mounds of molluscan seashells. The
burial mounds date back 5,000 years ago. The local Ohlone People, including the
Puichon Tribe, supported by several other nations including Ute Dine from the
Southwest, Me-Wuk from the Yosemite Valley, Wappo, Wintun, Potwin and Yokuts,
have taken part in this struggle.
As recently as 225 years ago, the
Muwekma Ohlone Nation flourished where the Temescal Creek flowed into the Bay,
in what became Emeryville. The Muwekma Ohlone spoke the ancient Chochenyo
language. European-origin settlers in the region ignorantly thought the burial
mounds were garbage heaps. When informed that the mounds were actually
cemeteries, the settlers arrogantly went right on leveling the ground and
discarding the very visible Native remains.
Although today they have been
largely destroyed, originally the Shellmounds were so big that they were noted
on the original U.S. Coast Guard maps.
Over the years as burial mounds
were disturbed by construction projects, the University of California at
Berkeley seized hundreds of remains. The university now refuses to return to the
Ohlone people the remains of their ancestors.
When the city of Emeryville
announced plans to “redevelop” the large area that is now the Bay
Street Mall, Native people and their supporters fought hard to get their
Shellmounds respectfully preserved. They attended city planning meetings and
hearings time and again.
Nevertheless, the Emeryville Redeve lopment
Agency and the Madisson/ Marquette business enterprise collaborated to go right
ahead clearing the land.
Many construction workers on the site complained
of illness on the job. Besides containing the burial sites, the area was an
environmental hazard—classified as a “Brown Field,” half of
which could have qualified for federal “Superfund”
But the workers were told that the toxic waste that had been
dumped there from polluting paint, pesticide and metal manufacturing years
earlier was no longer a danger. That was a lie.
Even the protesting Native
people picketing the site became ill from the toxics released into the air by
the excavation. And no one told the workers they were desecrating a Native
cemetery. Had they known, some of their own cultural sensitivities would have
prohibited them from working there.
The area’s character as a burial
site is being hidden from buyers of costly housing built as part of the
“redevelopment.” Workers in some of the stores in the mall continue
to report illnesses related to the environment.
Early on, one supporter of
the Indi ge nous struggle made his own placard which read, “No shopping on
graves- Ohlone Cemetery.” He picketed the construction site both before
and after work hours.
Madisson/Marquette and Emeryville maneuvered to get
away with the “redevelopment” by citing the federal
government’s refusal to recognize the Ohlone Nation.
burial mounds are still in the ground, with the huge mall built over them
reaping huge profits for the owners.
On Nov. 25 the marchers conducted an
informational picket, handing out leaflets to carloads of shoppers entering the
mall. A hundred Native people and supporters hoisted beautiful banners
identifying their nation and tribe. Some would-be shoppers, after reading the
leaflet, drove right out the exit.
The IPOC leaflet stated that the
Shellmounds are older than the Egyptian pyramids, and that the Ohlone People
remain in the area. The flier explained that “ancestors remain buried
under this mall” and asked people, “Please don’t shop at a
place that does not value the sacred sites of Ohlone people,” and to
“protest this form of American terrorism at the collaborative hands of
government agencies and commercial developers.”
Ohlone, said that renaming the roadways at the mall—like “Shellmound
Street” and “Ohlone Street” —is Emeryville’s
“way of commemorating the Ohlone People who were once here” without
respecting the “Ohlone People who are still here.”
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